Beatdowns and Downbeats: America as a Hip Hop Nation–#EtownEngage

On January 12-13, Elizabethtown College hosted a teach-in called #EtownEngage. Over 20 faculty from across the disciplines opened their classrooms to the community and hosted discussions on issues related to recent events in Ferguson, MO, Staten Island, NY and elsewhere–a conversation pointed to by the hashtag, #BlackLivesMatter.

In REL 170: Signifying Religion: An African American Worldview, I gave a talk called “Beatdowns and Downbeats: America as a Hip Hop Nation.”

We began with a free association exercise about what could be signified by call America a “Hip Hop nation.” Words like “excess,” “ridiculous,” or “obscene” might come to mind. This is the sort of picture hinted at by the singer, Lorde, in a verse highlighting mainstream images of Hip Hop aesthetics.

But every song’s like gold teeth, grey goose, trippin’ in the bathroom
Blood stains, ball gowns, trashin’ the hotel room,
We don’t care, we’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams.
But everybody’s like Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your timepiece.
Jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold leash.
We don’t care, we aren’t caught up in your love affair.

With this imagery in mind, we might remark that the most Hip Hop moment in American history involved some 18th century colonists who geared up in “wild” costume to protest the Man. These Bostonian rabble rousers looted the Man’s precious, heavily-taxed tea and made it rain in a local harbor.

Boston Tea Party Currier colored.jpg
“Boston Tea Party Currier colored” by Nathaniel Currier, 1846 . Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Stories like this are part of America’s “best of” album! Is that Hip Hop.

When we talk about American as a Hip Hop nation, we might also think of “creativity,” “innovation,” “resourcefulness.” According to Ice-T and Lord Jamar, such ideals are at the root of Hip Hop culture.

Hip Hop culture is about freedom of expression. It’s about the self finding a way to be heard when the world doesn’t want to hear you. To borrow from Zora Neale Hurston and black folk tradition, it’s about “hitting a straight lick with a crooked stick.”

In the above documentary Something From Nothing: The Art of RapIce-T describes being in the army. He (and a fair number of other blacks) were serving a country that was debating the extent to which people like him could eat, sit, drink, got to school, and otherwise be in this country. And this is in the decades after the Civil Rights Movement.

What did black people do in response to such dramatic irony? They did the most American thing possible. They insisted on being heard. They it a straight lick with a crooked stick.

The origins of Hip Hop are debated and complex. But it for certain involved echoes of the hip hop of marching, the rhythms of the Post-Civil Rights party scene. And faded into it were the lyric folks traditions recorded by Hurston and others. All of these experiences contributed to the discourse that is Hip Hop. The message has said many things, but it might summarized as #BlackLivesMatter.

I said a hip hop, the hippie to the hippie
the hip hip hop, a you don’t stop
The rock it to the bank bang boogie say up jumped the boogie,
to the rhythm of the boogie the beat
A skiddlee bebop a we rock a scoobie doo
And guess what America? We love you
Cause ya rock and ya roll with so much soul
You could rock till you’re a hundred and one years old
So with this beat and with this rhyme, what is it that they want Americans to know?
I don’t mean to brag, I don’t mean to boast
But we like hot butter on our breakfast toast
Rock it up, baby bubbah
Baby bubbah to the boogie da bang bang da boogie
To the beat beat, it’s so unique
Come on everybody and dance to the beat.

The concept of a Hip Hop nation encourages us to observe that the American experiment includes moments like these. I encourage you to reflect on them and what they say about America.

“The Slaves Who Built the White House,” Talk of the Nation, January 14, 2009. 

Jay-Z & Kanye West – Made in America (feat. Frank Ocean) from John Deer on Vimeo.

Jay-Z and Beyonce's Entrance at the 2013 Presidential Inauguration

Questions for Reflection:

The following is a recent sample from the Hip Hop nation. What is it signifying about America?

Do the two sayings signify different things? Why or why not?


Richard-Newton Picture

Richard Newton, PhD is curator of Sowing the Seed and Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at  Elizabethtown College. His scholarship focuses on the anthropology of scriptures.